My family immigrated to Toronto, Ontario in September 1994. I was two-months shy of my sixth birthday when we left our second-floor apartment in Alexandria and drove south to Cairo International Airport. I vaguely remember growing up on Roushdy Street, playing with friends in the alley between our neighboring buildings, and standing on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean ocean from our balcony on a clear morning.
Arriving in Pearson International, we were met by my aunt and cousins who had immigrated several years earlier. Our first Sunday in Toronto, we joined them for services at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Scarborough. I recall the smell of incense as I entered through the church doors, the liturgical chants that filled the room, and the sensation of feeling as though I were transported back ‘home.’
Although I was not aware of it then, this was the first parish established in North America and the priest conducting mass – father Marcos – was the first ordained (in 1964) to specifically serve immigrants on this continent. After completing my undergraduate degree in History at York University, I joined their graduate program and I now study that parish and many others like it across the North American diaspora.
As a junior scholar researching the history of Egypt and Coptic immigrants to North America, I encountered a scarcity of records pertaining to this group in public archives. In the course of preparing my dissertation proposal, I found that many individuals and organizations in Canada had amassed troves of archival records, which are not well maintained and are in some cases partially destroyed. I then spent last summer in Egypt, locating and photographing hundreds of textual and visual material relating to the Coptic Archdiocese of North America (established in 1963). While in Cairo, I discovered that many families did not trust public archives to faithfully preserve their treasured collections or were too anxious of government targeting to make that material widely accessible. Instead, valuable material now sits on shelves in their homes, at the mercy of the heat and liable to degrade with the passage of time. These issues all create barriers that make the advancement of historical knowledge difficult.
After returning to Toronto, I discussed these issues with Dr. Gilberto Fernandes and Dr. Christopher Grafos. I realized then, that the solution lay in the example set by their Portuguese Canadian History Project (PCHP) and Greek Canadian History Project (GCHP). Their success inspired the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP), a digital repository serving to bridge the gap between public archives, immigrant communities, and academic scholars.
The Coptic Canadian History Project is a non-profit community outreach organization. It aims to identify, archive, digitize, preserve, and provide free access to source materials that reflect the knowledge, collective memory, and experiences of Egypt’s Coptic population, Coptic immigrants in Canada, and their descendants.
To date, most scholarly projects on Coptic communities stress an ancient and glorious past that is filled with the stories of great heroes and saints. Such narratives, and the larger-than-life figures who inhabit them, often reflect lofty ideals rather than the reality of daily life. Instead, the CCHP is the first ever repository to prioritize the history and collective memory of ‘ordinary’ Coptic immigrants. Why do people emigrate? What do they leave behind? Where do they go and why? How do they make sense of their new surroundings? What does it mean to be a Copt in Canada? It is such questions that animate this project and drive our continuous search for a diversity of immigrant experiences.
I proposed the project last fall to the Chair of the Department of History at York University. He encouraged me to speak with Dr. Athanasios Gekas, Chair of modern Greek History. As co-founder of the Greek Canadian History Project, he kindly agreed to also supervise the CCHP. With the department’s full support and encouragement, I then took my proposal to Michael Moir, head archivist at the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections (CTASC). Recognizing our potential for building bridges, fostering research, and advancing social and cultural equity, we recently received their official support. Over the coming months, the CCHP will facilitate the transfer of audio-visual and textual material to CTASC for preservation and digitization. The physical material – including newspapers, photos, and letters – will then be available and accessible to all visitors to the Clara Thomas Archives. The availability of digitized copies will also allow the CCHP to host curated digital exhibits online for educators, researchers, students, and the general public.
In addition to public archives, the project will bridge the gap between Coptic communities and academic scholars. We will accomplish this in two interrelated ways. First, by promoting research and community outreach through public lectures, interdisciplinary workshops, and conference presentations. The aim of encouraging scholarly collaboration is to unite researchers in the field of Coptic studies and to establish vibrant partnerships with Coptic Canadian organizations and individuals. To that end, we held our inaugural conference on Thursday April 6, 2017 at York University. The event launched the CCHP and was supported by a generous donation from Dr. Marcel Martel, holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History. Scholars from across Canada and the United States delivered papers on a variety of topics relating to the relationship between Coptic immigrant communities and developments in Egypt. Our keynote was Dr. Paul Sedra, associate professor of History at Simon Fraser University. He delivered an engrossing address on the contemporary relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and successive regimes in Egypt. I believe that the attendance of prominent academics and cultural leaders in and outside Toronto’s Coptic Canadian communities confirms the overall reach and public interest of the project and its mission.
Second, our website hosts a Digital Café comprised of this Scholar’s Corner blog and an Immigrants’ Stories collection. These community driven portals provide contributors a space to share their diverse experiences and perspectives. The CCHP is deeply committed to encouraging both community involvement and scholarly collaboration. I therefore encourage established and junior scholars to introduce their work, and all interested viewers to participate directly and leave something new for future generations. With your help, we will succeed in promoting and preserving the experiences of Egypt’s Coptic population, Coptic immigrants in Canada, and their descendants. Our stories matter, and I look forward to sharing them together in our digital café.
The CCHP is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact theCCHP@gmail.com if you would like to join or support the Project.
Michael Akladios is completing his PhD at York University on the immigrant experience of diverse Coptic communities in post-Second World War Toronto, Montreal, and New York. Over the course of his PhD Michael has become particularly interested in questions around the influence of the Coptic renaissance on émigré populations and the politicization of collective memory. Michael is the founder and project manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP).